Málaga: A (sort of) river runs through it 

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The Guadalmedina river looking northwards

A white van is parked under a bridge while two city council workers collect old cardboard boxes, plastic bags and other piles of rubbish. Dog owners let their excited pets off the lead to run around and chase each other. A skateboard park with ramps covered with graffiti sits unused, on this cold Thursday afternoon in February at least. 

I could be describing any park in any Spanish city, right? Actually, I’m talking about a river. 

Flowing down from the Sierra de Camarolos mountains, the Guadalmedina river runs for 47km straight through the city of Málaga, and into the Mediterranean sea. It divides the city into two halves, with the elegant historic centre on its left bank packed with international visitors, even on a windy winter’s day. 

But no-one is coming to the Costa del Sol to admire this natural attraction. In response to frequent and fatal flooding incidents the river was canalised in the mid 20th century to control the water flow. Over the years this piece of well-intentioned engineering has become a source of embarrassment for the local Malagueños, who have called it a ‘scar’ and ‘eyesore’ in the articles I’ve read. You can’t blame them for feeling a bit ashamed, channels of murky looking water are surrounded by wild shrubbery, scruffy, cracked and grafittied walls and piles of rubble. This gives the whole area an atmosphere that’s both dubious and a bit sad, totally in contrast to the lively, friendly and well-maintained city centre.

The river is basically now a concrete channel filled with with rubble and wild plants

But there is a ray of hope. In January 2022 the Andalucian local government announced a 7 million Euro project to redevelop this long neglected river area. The new project, named ‘Water and Life’, is organised in a number of stages. The first phase, to be completed in 2023, involves creating 5km of new accessible paths and lighting installations, along with planting over 5000 new trees and shrubs along the northern section of the Guadalmedina valley. The river part should look like, well, a river and not a storm drain, with a natural flow that can be controlled safely in a region that still suffers from flash flooding. Only one year ago, a woman had to be rescued by firefighters after being trapped in the usually dry riverbed. Every first Wednesday of the month, the Limonero reservoir upstream opens its flood gates for routine maintenance, and the subsequent torrent of water trapped the unsuspecting walker.

The water flow is usually confined to side channels, with the centre section used as a path

I really hope that this new park can be as successful and popular as the Madrid Rio Project that I frequently write about. That project has shown that a carefully thought-out redevelopment, with the right mix of greenery and usable public spaces, can be a real asset for a city. It could also learn from that project’s failings too. For example there are currently no plans to have separate cycles lines along the Guadalmedina, an error that I lament every time I walk (or cycle) along the Manzanares. The area will also need to be publicised to tourists too, with adequate information and signage from the city centre, something that Madrid’s council has yet to achieve in my opinion!

Keeping an eye on this project gives me a great excuse to visit Málaga again anyway, as does eating some espetos: the famous sardines on a skewer cooked on a fire on the beach. It was too windy when I went…

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